October 7, 2018: "Where Were You?"
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’”?
Where were you on 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell? Raise your hand if you remember. Where were you when God laid the foundations of the earth? Raise your hand if you remember.
That’s exactly the point of God’s question to Job in Job 38:4:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
In what Alfred, Lord Tennyson called “the greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature,” the story of Job may well be the first writing in history to take seriously the question of why bad things happen to good people. The book challenges the prevailing understanding of God, specifically related to God’s role in human suffering—what theologians like to call “theodicy.” My sixth-grade son is learning stem words, so “theodicy” is formed by the joining together of two Greek words: “Theos” for God, and “dicy” is from the Greek word “dike” which refers to justice. “Theodicy” is God’s justice (or lack thereof).
At the beginning of the story, Job, out of his suffering, wants to put God on trial. Job knew he was innocent and undeserving of his suffering. To Job, that meant that God must be unjust and unfair? This thinking is still quite prevalent today.
In my last church there was a man, I’d guess he was in his mid sixties, who all of a sudden dropped out of church. He had been a regular, so his disappearance was noticeable. I saw him out one day, and I told him I missed seeing him and asked where he had been. He grew cagey. He said, “Well, the answer isn’t a quick one, but if you really want to know, I’ll come see you next week and tell you.” I said, “Of course!” We made an appointment. The man began to tell me how he watched with horror the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami off the coast of Indonesia—the deadliest tsunami known that killed more than 230,000 people across fourteen countries. “How could a just and righteous God allow that to happen?” he asked his pastor.
Have you ever asked that question? How could a good and loving God allow the Holocaust, or a child to die of cancer, or a gunman to shoot up an innocent crowd at a concert?
It’s the same question Job asked some 2,500 years ago. Job was quite wealthy for the day, but he lost all of his wealth from lightning and marauders. He lost his family—all 10 children from a tornado. And if that wasn’t enough, he lost his health; he had “painful boils from the sole of his foot unto the crown of his head.” (Job 2:7). This would all be understandable if Job had been a rotten guy and deserved all of this. The problem was, he was a good guy. A really good guy facing unfathomable tragedy. Job is angry and blames God for his suffering. He wants to put God on trial.
Enter Job’s so-called three friends . . . “miserable comforters” Job calls them. They represent three different versions of the same basic idea: “God is just, and in God’s righteousness God rewards the just and punishes the sinful.” So Job obviously deserved what he got. (How would you like to have friends like that?)
You know this argument, right? It’s still around today.
· It’s the preacher who says that Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was God’s punishment for their sin.
· It’s the assumption that “she deserved that sexual harassment—look at what she was wearing.”
· It’s the subtle, insidious idea that people are poor because they’re lazy.
“God rewards the just and punishes the sinful” is as ill conceived now as it was in the ancient text of Job.
Job’s fourth friend, Elihu, points out the false dichotomy at play in the text: that a person must believe either a) Job deserves his suffering, or b) God is in the wrong. Elihu hints at a more complex understanding of God’s justice, rooted in appreciation of the vastness of God’s creation. “Job, are you listening?” he asks. “Have you noticed all this? Stop in your tracks! Take in God’s miracle-wonders!” (Job 37:14 MSG)
That’s when God breaks in, and out of the whirlwind asks Job a series of questions including, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job roughly 80 questions over the next few chapters. 80 questions that Job can’t really answer . . .
· Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? (38:8)
· Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? (38:16)
· Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? (38:18)
· Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness? (38:19)
· Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (38:22)
· Can you send forth lightnings? (38:35)
· Can you hunt the prey for the lion? (38:39)
· Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? (38:36)
· (And my personal favorite) Who has let the wild ass go free? (39:5)
And roughly 70 more questions like these.
Job’s response, from the Message:
I babbled on about things far beyond me,
I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I’m sorry—forgive me.
Did God answer Job’s questions? No. Did God explain the problem of theodicy to Job? No. Did God spell out why bad things happen to good people? No. Was Job satisfied nonetheless? Yes, he seems to be.
Mystery. Job experienced God first-hand. Job encountered the mystery of an infinite God . . . the complexity of the Creator. The knowledge Job thought he had about God and the way the world works, he realized, was so limited . . . so tremendously small when compared to the wonders of the Eternal . . . he realized his knowledge was irrelevant. Job ditched knowledge for faith. And it made all the difference.
The time in my life when I wrestled with the problem of theodicy was after the death of my father. He was only 60 years old. “How can an all powerful and perfectly righteous, loving God permit evil and suffering?” I wondered. Realize, I already had a seminary degree at that point. I was a “Master of Divinity,” wrestling with the Divine. So I found myself reading Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I know some of you have read it. Perhaps more than any other book (outside the Bible) this book challenged me, and transformed my understanding of God. You want to know the chapter that did it for me? Chapter 2: “The Story of a Man Named Job.” In those 16 pages, Kushner challenged me to drop my hard-earned and expensive knowledge about God, so that I could move into knowing God. Did you catch the subtle difference there? It’s the difference between knowing about something vs. personally knowing it.
You can tell me all about mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can tell me about its color, its consistency. You can describe the unusual combination of mint, chocolate, sugar, and cream. You can describe the sort-of-tingly-after-taste, and describe what a wonderful feeling it is to have a scoop of mint chocolate chip on a hot summer day. I could study all of the ingredients—learn the differences between the Ben & Jerry’s brand and Mayfield’s. But could I truly know mint chocolate chip ice cream without ever tasting it myself? No!
Before Job’s personal encounter with God, Job only knew about God. No wonder he was angry at God. Listen to how Frederick Buechner describes what changed for Job:
As for the children he had lost when the house blew down, not to mention all his employees, he never got an explanation about them because he never asked for one, and the reason he never asked for one was that he knew that even if God gave him one that made splendid sense out of all the pain and suffering that had ever been since the world began, it was no longer splendid sense that he needed because with his own eyes he had beheld, and not as a stranger, the one who in the end clothed all things, no matter how small or confused or in pain, with his own splendor. And that was more than sufficient.
The story of Job is, in part, the story of accepting our human limitations, particularly our inability to grasp the Infinite. We resist that notion, particularly when we are young. But in the same way that we cannot simultaneously be grateful and afraid, we cannot simultaneously be angry and awestruck. Mystery, to the young, is simply something to be mastered. But what we learn from Job is that faith is not mastery over the mystery. Faith befriends the mystery. Because, as G.K. Chesterson put it: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”